Ken's Comedy Corner
By Ken Lashway
Harold Lloyd entered the world in
extreme poverty, born to unremarkable parents, and throughout the years of his
youth, had no real roots. When he died seventy-seven years later, he was a very
wealthy man, long entrenched in a luxurious Beverly Hills mansion with 26
bathrooms, and was famous throughout the world as one of the great film
comedians of Hollywood’s early years.
Ironically, Lloyd’s first love was not
comedy, but dramatic acting for the stage, so his early acting experiences were
exclusively in drama. By the time Harold reached the age of twenty, he and his
father had moved to Los Angeles, where the film industry was still in its birth
throes. There he competed for roles with the desperation that only poverty can
inspire, and was successful in landing small dramatic parts that got his foot in
the show business door. The turning point for Harold came from his association
with the soon-to-be-great Hal Roach, who was a fellow actor struggling to win
some of the same roles Lloyd was after. The two became friends, and when Roach
came into an inheritance (a whopping $3,000), he formed his own film company and
asked Lloyd to join forces with him. It was Hal Roach who persuaded Harold Lloyd
to look to comedy to make his mark, seeing in him the fire of the poor, humble
man determined to make good against the odds - a formula which could well be
adapted to comic circumstance.
By 1917, Roach’s production company had
released more than seventy short films featuring Harold Lloyd as a comic
character they called ‘Lonesome Luke’, who was akin to
Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Little Tramp’ - but Lloyd
wanted more than just to imitate the great Chaplin. So he developed an on-screen
character uniquely his own, which he always referred to as the ‘Glasses
Character’, and it was this invention which skyrocketed Harold Lloyd to fame and
fortune. His ‘Glasses Character’ always wore a straw hat, horn-rimmed glasses,
and a ready smile. He wore no special costume besides these articles, and strove
to present a vulnerable but determined boy-next-door underdog kind of persona.
Much like the real-life Lloyd, he was prepared to overcome all obstacles that
stood between him and success. This was the kind of attitude that audiences
loved to see in post-World War I America, and whether or not it was intentional,
Lloyd tapped into the prevailing mood of the American public with this new
The ’Glasses Character’ was so deeply
embraced, so loved by the movie-going world that Lloyd retained the character
for the duration of his movie career, both in silent films and in talkies. Some
of these were among the first feature-length films ever made, and helped
establish the appeal of longer films. With 1921‘s forty-six minute feature, ‘A
Sailor Made Man’, Lloyd kicked off a string of hugely successful silent films,
which included ‘Grandma’s Boy’, ‘Safety Last’, ‘Doctor Jack’, ‘The Freshman’,
and ‘Speedy’. These films helped Lloyd achieve the zenith of his popularity, and
during the decade of the 1920’s, his films did as well or better than anyone
else’s in Hollywood.
He became renowned for his daredevil stunts
in these films, most of which he performed entirely on his own, although
sometimes with the aid of clever and innovative photographic techniques. The one
scene he is invariably remembered for came from 1923’s ’Safety Last’, in which
he is shown dangling from a building, precariously hanging onto a giant clock.
Ironically, Lloyd was never seriously injured by any of the high-speed chases or
other dangerous film stunts - his worst career accident stemmed from the
misjudgment of a prop bomb on the set which had real explosive material inside.
When he lit it, the ’prop’ exploded and took off his thumb and forefinger, and
temporarily blinded him. His sight returned eventually, but he was obliged to
wear a prosthetic device covered by a glove for the remainder of his film
career, unbeknownst to his fans.
After 1928’s ’Speedy’, Harold Lloyd began
making talkie films, and while they did not achieve quite the same success as
his silent film masterpieces, movies like ’Welcome Danger’, ’Feet First’, ’Movie
Crazy’, and ’Milky Way’ received critical acclaim not only for being hilarious,
but for being well-constructed, well-presented stories that were beautifully
photographed. Lloyd believed that these films were among the funniest he ever
made, and was very disappointed that they were not received more
enthusiastically by the public. By 1938, Lloyd felt resigned to the fact that he
would never again achieve the soaring popularity he had enjoyed during the
Roaring Twenties, and became less interested in making comedies. At this stage
of his career, without formally announcing any kind of retirement, he quietly
turned his attention to other interests, such as dabbling in color photography.
Some of the first Technicolor shorts ever made were filmed at ‘Greenacres’, his
44-room mansion in Beverly Hills.
While he did appear sporadically on screen,
e.g. ‘The Sin of Harold Diddlebock’ (1947), Lloyd was mostly lost from the
public eye until he was presented with an honorary Oscar award in 1953 for
having achieved the status of ‘master comedian‘. After another period of
relative obscurity, the best of his films were compiled by Harold himself in two
documentaries made in 1962 and 1963, and this sparked renewed interest in his
early genius, both for those who remembered and for a new generation of fans.
A contemporary of both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd was often referred to by critics and movie-lovers as
the ‘Third Genius’. These three early greats were, and still are, often
mentioned in the same discussions and debates, and that fact alone is tribute to
Lloyd’s place in the pantheon of great film comedians.
Ken Lashway is a freelance writer from New York. This is one of a handful of profiles Ken has written about the legends of comedy for
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